Trying to stop the Internet these days may feel like Sisyphus pushing a rock to the top of the mountain. But officials in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are certainly giving it a try.
A new cyber-crime law issued by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan protects credit card and bank account information published on the Internet, providing jail time for anyone convicted of using electronic means to forge credit cards or ID cards. It also makes it a crime to solicit prostitution or encourage someone to commit adultery.
The measure also “effectively closes-off the country’s only remaining forum for free speech,” says a new report by Human Rights Watch. It makes it illegal to “criticize senior officials, argue for political reform, or organize unlicensed demonstrations.” Anyone charged under the new law could pay penalties of up to $270,000 as well as imprisonment.
The statute comes amid growing discontent with the ruling monarchy despite massive salary increases for public sector employees and a $2.7 billion package to assist poor Emirates with outstanding loans.
“Over the last year the climate of repression in the UAE has worsened dramatically and over 60 members of the Al-Islah movement, a non-violent opposition movement, have been detained,” Nadim Khoury, the Deputy Director of the Middle East for Human Rights Watch told The Media Line. “Some have even had their citizenship revoked. That is a dangerous precedent.”
The European Parliament last week passed a resolution expressing concern about the changed atmosphere in the UAE.
Khoury says the President and other government officials have not been responsive to charges leveled by Human Rights Watch. “As the environment in the UAE has worsened, our access to the country and the willingness of the government to engage in substantive debate has declined dramatically,” he complained.
The UAE is a federation of seven ‘emiratis’ or principalities, each headed by an emir, but with one president for all seven. In the almost two years since the “Arab Spring” -- protests that have swept the region -- began, the unrest has bypassed these small states. Yet in recent months, opposition groups including the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Al-Islah have begun calling for regime change.
It is those calls that the new cyber-crime law is aimed against, says Dr. Theodore Karasik, the Director of Research for the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, the wealthiest of the seven emirates.
“From the UAE’s point of view, the tensions that are sweeping the region is another reason this new cyber law has been put into place,” he told The Media Line.
Karasik said that, perhaps surprisingly, most citizens seem to support the new legislation.
“It is seen as necessary because of the amount of hacking and other cyber-related crimes,” he says. “The Middle East faces cyber threats from both criminal networks and non-state actors. This law is seen as just part of doing business.”
But it also shows that the UAE’s rulers are growing increasingly nervous about the threat that the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which won elections in Egypt and Tunisia, could pose to the current regimes. Other threats come from academics and human rights activists. In March, Muhammed Rashid Al-Kalbani, a young UAE national, was arrested for tweeting about the Arab Spring. He was accused of “damaging national security social peace.” Under the updated cybercrime law, he could be fined and imprisoned.
The new law will also encourage self-censorship. Wary of being arrested, activists may choose not to post on Facebook or Twitter, aware that the government is watching them.
The regime is hitting back hard at any opposition.
“We hear today that there are some who are trying to tamper with the stability of the UAE,” Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al-Qasimi, the ruler of the small Ras Al-Khaimah said recently, according to an official government press release. “I would like to say to them: the people of the UAE don’t need lessons from anyone. They are confident in themselves and in the solidarity that they share. They don’t change.”
Al-Qasimi also defended the government’s policy of stripping citizenship from some opponents of the regime.
“He who does not like this should leave for another place,” he said. “Any treachery is a shame for him and for his country.”
With the new cyber-crime law, the monarchies of the UAE are trying to stop protests from spreading on the Internet. But, like Sisyphus, they are unlikely to succeed.